Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center


Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Sukkot 5760/1999

"On Sukkot the World is Judged for Water"

Attn. Yehudah Leibowitz

Bene Beraq

The Mishnah says, "The world is judged at four periods of the year: on Passover, for grain; ... and on the Festival [of Tabernacles], they are judged for water" (Rosh Ha-shanah 1.2). The gemara explains the source for this: "Tanya: R. Judah said in the name of Rabbi Akiva ... why does the Torah tell us to pour water on the Festival [of Sukkot]? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Pour water before Me on the Festival, so that you be blessed with good rainfall during the year" (Rosh ha-Shanah 16a). Through the Temple service ordained on Sukkot, the Torah hints that this festival is a time of judgment.[1]

Rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles (Rema), in his glosses on the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 674), wrote: "Early halakhic authorities said that the shadow of the moon on the night of Hoshanah Rabbah provides an omen of what will happen to a person or to his relatives in the coming year." The Vilna Gaon explained this as follows: "For it is then that judgment is finalized for each person, also concerning water, for water is life eternal, and it is said, 'Ten things are called life.'"

Thus we see that the language of the Mishnah is obscure, concealing twice as much as it reveals[2]: Judgment is passed on Sukkot not on water alone, but also on human life. Judgment of human beings is symbolized by water, since water represents eternal life.

From their contents it is easy to see that the hoshanot recited on Sukkot are supplications and petitions for these days of judgment, and that they relate to judgment, for grain and water but also for human life.

Actually, the Mishnah's reference in Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah to passing judgment on human life does not pertain exclusively to Sukkot. The phrase in that mishnah, "On the Festival of Weeks, for the fruits of trees," has been explained as a reference to human beings as symbolized by the tree on the basis of the scriptural verse, "For the human being is the tree of the field..." (Deut. 20:19). Moreover, on the basis of this the gemara even goes so far as to define the Feast of Weeks as a New Year: "Is the Festival of Weeks a New Year? Whence do we know that the Festival of Weeks is also a New Year? Because it is taught, 'On the Festival of Weeks [judgment is passed] on the fruits of the trees'" (Megillah 31b).[3]

Being a time of judgment, one might expect the Festival of Sukkot to be a time of awe, of fear and trembling, but this is not the case. According to the phrase coined by the men of the Great Assembly for use in our prayers, Sukkot is the "season of our rejoicing," just as Passover is the "season of our liberation" and Shavuot, the "season of receiving the Torah." It follows that the duty rejoicing on Sukkot refers to more than the general joyousness of all the Festivals and is particular to defining the essence of Sukkot as a time of rejoicing.

Maimonides (Lulav 8.12) also stressed the particular nature of rejoicing on this festival:

Although we are commanded to rejoice on all the festivals, on Sukkot there was extra rejoicing in the Temple, as it is written: "and you shall rejoice before the Lord your G-d seven days" (Lev. 23:40). How was this done? On the eve of the first day of the festival they would set up in the Temple a place for the women above and for the men below ... and rejoicing would begin from the end of the first day in the evening, and would continue thus all the intermediate days of the festival.

Thus he explains the special rejoicing on Sukkot, above and beyond the other festivals. In his opinion Simhat Beit ha-Shoeva, the water-drawing festival, also originated from the commandment to rejoice especially on Sukkot.[4]

The need for clarification is self-evident. What is special about Sukkot that one should be especially joyous then? And how is this duty of extra joyousness to be reconciled with the essence of the day as one of judgment on mankind, as follows from the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah?

In fact, this dual aspect of Sukkot is evident even from the plain scriptural text, in two different ways. In the section on the festivals in the book of Leviticus the passages pertaining to Sukkot are repeated, two passages being devoted to the subject, each with an introductory and a concluding verse. The first passage begins (Lev. 23:33): "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month, ..." and concludes (v. 37): "those are the set times of the Lord." Later, we encounter another introductory verse (v. 39): "Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, ..."[5]

Secondly, Sukkot is distinguished from the other festivals also by the number of sacrifices offered. On all the other festivals seven sheep are offered each day, whereas on Sukkot, twice as many -- fourteen; on all the other festivals one ram is offered daily, whereas on Sukkot the number is doubled to two rams daily.[6]

The insights of the Maharal of Prague, in his book Gevurot Hashem (chapter 46), shed light on this matter: we celebrate two major groups of holidays in the course of the year; one, the High Holy Days or the holidays in the month of Tishri; the other, the three pilgrimage festivals. Sukkot is a double festival in this respect, belonging both to the High Holy Days and to the pilgrimage festivals.[7]

The association of Sukkot with the High Holy Days is expressed by the Sages in several sources:

R. Avin said: it is like two people who come before a judge [other versions: who compete in a race], and we do not know who will win. However, we know that the one who carries a wreath in his hands is the winner. Thus Israel and the other nations of the world contest before the Holy One, blessed be He, on Rosh ha-Shanah, and we do not know who will win. But when Israel leave the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, carrying their lulavs and etrogs in their hands, we know that Israel are the winners (Leviticus Rabbah 30.2).

This homily associates the commandment of the "four kinds" [lulav and etrog] with the idea of judgment on the High Holy Days. But not only the commandment of the four kinds, but also the commandment of the sukkah is related to the High Holy Days. According to the explanation given by the Vilna Gaon (commentary on Song of Songs 1:4) we are commanded to dwell in the sukkah during Tishri because it is then that the clouds of glory return after Yom Kippur. Hence, this commandment as well symbolically expresses the return of the people to their lofty spirituality in the wake of atonement on Yom Kippur.[8] This connection between Sukkot and the High Holy Days sheds light on the continuity of the days of judgment into the festival of Sukkot, giving this festival significance as a time of judgment and atonement.

The second aspect of Sukkot, as belonging to the three pilgrimage festivals, is plainly evident in all the passages of the Pentateuch that deal with the holidays and need not be detailed here.

This dual aspect of the Sukkot as High Holy Days and as a joyous pilgrimage festival sheds light on the double number of sacrifices, one set for each aspect of Sukkot, and explains the extra rejoicing on this dual holiday. Moreover, an idea set forth by the Maharal must be added and stressed here. It is an important principle that whenever two different sanctified times coincide it is not like two guests who happen upon the same inn together; rather they merge into a single essence, each of the aspects nurturing the other. For example, when Yom Kippur falls on the Sabbath, the day does not have two separate types of temporal sanctity -- of Yom Kippur and of the Sabbath -- existing side by side, rather it acquires a new temporal sanctity -- a Sabbath Day of Atonement. This explains the halakhic practice that a person who eats on a Sabbath Day of Atonement for reasons of health is not required to recite the Sabbath kiddush, for the sanctity of the day is a new and special sort of temporal sanctity.[9]

If this is true for two types of temporal sanctity that incidentally coincide, then all the moso when two systems of holidays regularly coincide. Sukkot may be said to be the holiday in which the two generally accepted systems of temporal sanctity unite into a single temporal sanctity with two inner components -- the High Holy Days and the pilgrimage festivals. It is not incidental that the temporal sanctity of this holiday is defined as "the time of our rejoicing." Rejoicing is the outward expression of inner completeness (Maharal). The complementary integration of temporal sanctities into a single essence causes an outburst of joy, expressive of this great sense of wholeness and completion: the time of our rejoicing. Nor is it incidental that this festival is called the "Feast of Ingathering" (Hag Ha-Asif). During this festival we gather together all the fruits of our labors invested throughout the entire year. The spiritual efforts put into our private sanctifications of time, in all their unique variations during the High Holy Days and the festivals, unite and come together to constitute this complex and special time, the Feast of Ingathering.[10] Hence the aspect of judgment on this festival takes the form of judgment for water. Survival of the world depends on water. Rain, the key to survival of the world, depends on the wholeness of human beings and on their prayers for rain. As we read in Genesis 2:5, "... no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord G-d had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till [la'avod, lit. to work] the soil," on which Rashi commented that G-d did not send rain because "there was no man to till the soil and there was no one to recognize the good brought by rain, but when man came and knew that the world needs rain, he prayed for it, and it rained and then the trees and grass grew." Rashi interpreted la'avod not as work, but as worship, prayer, as in "to worship Him (le-'ovdo) with all your heart -- this refers to prayer." The world stands still, no rain falls and nothing grows because the prayers of human beings are lacking. Their prayers alone are the key to setting the world in action.[11] Thus it was at creation, and thus it is at the festival of ingathering, when everything is finally brought together. The requirement for water (rainfall) is Man's standing and achievement (prayer). Judgment for water is also passing judgment on human beings, for rain is an expression of the human heights achieved in prayer.

[1] For an explanation of why this idea is only hinted in the Torah and revealed in the Mishnah, cf. Rabbi Y. Kaminetzky, Emet le-Ya'akov, Parshat Emor. That the three festivals are a time of judgment is expressed in the thirteen attributes recited when taking out the Torah scrolls and in the petitions added at that point.

[2] As Maimonides said in his Commentary to the Mishnah : "That which is revealed (hanigleh) in this remark has been explained, and that which is concealed (hanistar) is undoubtedly very difficult."

[3] For discussion at greater length, see the Shelah on Tractate Shavuot.

[4] For further explication of Maimonides' view that Simhat beit ha-Shoeva is an expression of the duty to rejoice on Sukkot, cf. Hiiddushei Maran Ha-Griz ha-Levi al ha-Rambam.

[5] Biblical commentators have grappled with this problem. Cf. Torat Moshe of the Hatam Sofer and Meshekh Hokhmah, loc. sit. Another unique feature has to do with the offering of bulls made on this holiday, but for lack of space we shall not go into the matter further.

[6] See R. Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary on the relevant passages in the Torah and the points he stresses there.

[7] For further development of this idea, see the books on Rosh ha-Shanah and Sukkot authored by R. Y. Hutner, perhaps the greatest modern-day commentator on the Maharal.

[8] See further comments by R. David Cohen, one of the Rashe yeshiva of Yeshivat Knesset Yisrael -Hebron, in his book, Zeman Simhatenu.

[9] Cf. Or Sameah's commentary on Maimonides, Hiilkhot Shevitat Asor, as against the dissenting opinion of the Vilna Gaon, and the remark by the Hatam Sofer on Shulhan Arukh, Hilkhot Yom ha-Kippurim, on the intent of the kiddush hayom prayer ion the Day of Atonement when it falls on a Sabbath.

[10] Maharal, Netivot, loc.cit.

[11] Cf. R. Y. M. Harlap's preface to his commentary on prayer.

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